Tag Archives: reflective_practice

Three angles from which to view the practice of researchers

My book, Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (Taylor 2005), considers three angles—like facets of a crystal—from which to view the practice of researchers:

A.  their study of complex situations;

B.  their interactions with other social agents to establish what counts as knowledge; and

C.  their efforts to pursue social change in which they address self-consciously the complexities of their own situatedness as well as of the complexities of the situation studied.

These angles are evident in the larger structure of the book’s three parts: I. Modeling ecological complexity, II. Interpreting ecological modelers in their complex social context; and III. Engaging reflexively within ecological and social complexity.  The complex situations referred to in angle A are primarily those studied in ecology and socio-environmental research, but the complexity of influences studied in the interpretation of science leads to an equivalent set of three angles.

For each angle, I discuss problems with simple formulations of well-bounded systems that have coherent internal dynamics and simply mediated relations with their external context (labeled type 1 formulations in Chapter 6).  I contrast these formulations with work based on dynamics among particular, unequal units or agents whose actions implicate or span a range of social domains (type 3).  I note, however, that simple formulations are easier to communicate than reconstructions of particular situations and simple formulations appear to have more effect on social mobilization.  I introduce, therefore, an in-between kind of formulation (type 2): simple themes that open up issues, pointing to greater complexity and to further work needed in particular cases.  Indeed, opening out across boundaries and opening up questions provides the impetus from each chapter to the next.  This mode of expository and conceptual development is conveyed by the summary in the next post of the book’s themes and the questions opened up.

This 3×3 structure (summarized in a subsequent post) should be applicable to other fields with complex subject matters.

Probe, create change, reflect: A spin-off blog

The name “probe, create change, reflect” comes from the logo below (with “probe” replacing “inquire” to suggest that we need to look beyond first answers):

The logo is that of the Critical & Creative Thinking graduate program where I work, helping mid-career or career-changing students to “develop reflective practice as we change our schools, workplaces, and lives.” Posts on this new blog are in the same spirit. Posts specific to complexity in environment and biomedicine continue to be made on this Intersecting Processes blog (from which the first four months of the new blog have been extracted).  I am imagining that most readers with science and complexity interests will prefer to peruse blogs in that area when they visit this blog and ditto for readers with reflective practice interests when they visit the new blog.  Cross-posting will lead readers from one area of interest to the other, if they are inclined.

Related to the new blog: tweets, wiki on critical thinking and reflective practice

Why a blog? As before:
1. To make sure I write every morning (even if the post is drawn from past work) before the busy-ness of teaching and administration takes over my day.
2. To see if these daily bits of writing and thinking (and recalling past writing and thinking) combine in ways that lead to new insights.
3. To expose my work more widely, including unpublished work, in the hope that kindred thinkers might come across it and make contact.

Q: What constitutes a kindred thinker for the new blog? A: Someone who wants to promote critical thinking and reflective practice through teaching, groups processes, institutional change in the academy, and more broadly.

(Taking the new blog and this Intersecting Processes blog together, a kindred thinker would be someone who is interested in addressing complex situations “that cut across scales, involve heterogeneous components, and develop over time” and in extending this interest to the interpretation of the researcher-in-social-context and to engagements that modify the directions that researchers take—including their own.)

From Social Theory to enactable, contingent social theorizing

In the late 1980s Roberto Mangabeira Unger laid out a “constructive social theory,” which centered on “institutional and imaginative frameworks of social life [that] supply the basis on which people define and reconcile interests, identify, and solve problems.” He went on to note: “These frameworks cannot be adequately explained as mere crystallized outcomes of interest-accommodating or problem-solving activities” (1987, p. 4). Unger sought to present a view of how these “contexts [or frameworks] stick together, come apart, and get remade” (1987, p.5). At the time I was attracted to his efforts but found his work too theoretical, that is, too difficult to translate into practical action. In my thinking about scientific activity I was exploring a notion of representing-engaging, while Unger seemed to be presenting a outside representation of our “society-making powers.”

The same tensions are evident—not resolved—in the summaries I wrote in the notes of Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago, 2005) on social theory in relation to environmental change and the relation of agency and structure(dness), which are excerpted in the next two posts (Social Theory, agency and structuredness).   The tensions also run through my recent thinking about combining Intersecting processes (which has an outside representational emphasis) with Historical scan (produced by a particular group at a particular time) to generate enactable, group-specific praxis.

How so?

1.  I am interested in social theory (but critical of what I call Social Theory) and think that intersecting processes provides an approach that improves on the well-known structure-agency duality (i.e., actions of social agents are enabled and constrained by social structures and, in acting, social agents imperfectly reproduce those structure).

2.  At the same time my preliminary notes on these issues take more of the representational stance I note above in Unger’s work (see next two posts).

3.  I am also interested in people’s problem-solving and path-charting abilities in well-facilitated collaborative processes (which Unger might criticize as putting too much stock on “crystallized outcomes of interest-accommodating or problem-solving activities”), but have wanted to find ways to inject understandings of structures (or Unger’s structure-making) into these processes.

4.  At the same time I am critical both of a. discussions of the kind what Obama should do, what U.S. policy should be etc., as if the speaker (or the listener) could be transported into that position and act true to their principles without having been changed by the process of assuming this role in the structured system; and b. discussions of the dynamics of capital (or fractions of capital, such as the finance sector) dictating what is possible, as if no-one could assume a role within the structured system that could alter the dynamics and as if the human actors were blind to the real dynamics.  These latter discussions don’t address well the heterogeneity of things people do and say, nor the shifting associations and, to borrow Unger’s words, how they “stick together, come apart, and get remade,” nor the shifts in what any one person does and say from one micro-context to another.

5. I am interested in social theory that addresses the preceeding heterogeneity, shifting associations, and contingency–that brings the multiple strandedness of changing social life into the center (as against being the variation or noise around the deeper [more essential] Social Dynamics [capitalization deliberate here]).  That’s why the variety of responses in the on-the-spot, off-the-cuff discussion about race interested me.  And it’s reflected in my recent thinking about combining Intersecting processes (which has an outside representational emphasis) with Historical scan (produced by a particular group at a particular time) to generate enactable, group-specific praxis.

6. Something I would say, at this stage in my thinking, is that the focus should shift a. from shaping a better social theory to allowing for social theorizing, and b. from representing social dynamics to enacting the social theorizing so as to repeatedly define and pursue engagements in the heterogeneous dynamics that intersect in all kinds of society-making.  Enactable, contingent social theorizing maybe unsettled and unsettling, but should social theorizing be more something all that much easier to grasp than society-making?

Mapping: Can scientists become interpreters of science and bring the interpretations to bear on their science? II

Although the goals of mapping workshops were not fully met in the initial experiments described in the previous post, lessons can be drawn for the more general project of helping researchers reflect on their situatedness and act self-consciously to change their subsequent scientific practice.

1.  The workshop participants were self-selected and by no means representative of researchers.  Almost all of them were advanced graduate students willing to commit time to reflect on their research and possible future directions.  Having cut their teeth as researchers, they were now receptive to expanding the range of influences, both theoretical and practical, in planning their work.[i] The challenge for a workshop convener is to attract researchers other than students and to sustain their interaction long enough for maps to be revised and new collaborations to emerge.  On a simple level, revision could be helped by suitable computer software to draw and redraw maps, so that researchers would be better able to respond to the input of other participants in the workshop.  At a more fundamental level, workshop convenors who hoped to achieve wider participation and sustained interaction would need more institutional resources, workshop leading skills, and time than Haila and I had during these initial mapping workshops.

2.  Mapmakers may not be successful in modifying the directions in which they subsequently move. The original assumption behind mapping was that identifying multiple potential sites of engagement would help mapmaker change, but a successful outcome does not necessarily follow.  As it turned out, for example, E was not able to complete his study of urban carabid ecology.  Making a map or producing some other account of how research is constructed provides no guarantee that researchers will become able to mobilize different resources to their advantage.  Stanley Fish, an influential interpreter of legal texts and literature, takes this insight a step further and asserts that reflection on one’s situatedness is irrelevant to changing it (Fish 1989).

Not surprisingly given my view that all scientific agents “assess… the practical constraints and facilitations of possible actions in advance of their acting” (see post on imagination), I dispute Fish’s assertion.  It should be an empirical matter—one to be established through experiment and experience—which kinds of reflection, workshop processes, and modes of interaction and support contribute most to scientists modifying and restructuring the situations in which they undertake research (see Taylor 2005, Chapter 6, section C2 and C3, and Epilogue; also posts on workshops).  Of course, would-be workshop conveners who hope to experiment and apply the experience gained would need resources, such as those to which I alluded in the previous paragraph.

3.  The maps were centered on the individual mapmaker, tended to be idiosyncratic, and were not explicit about theory about the researchers’ situatedness in society and its implications for their scientific practice.  Again, further experiment and experience would be needed to promote more systematic map-making approaches and to assess their value.  What might happen if, say, workshop leaders urged a standard format, offered models from analogous situations, or promoted various theories or propositions about micro- and macro-social change?  Would some idiosyncrasy still have to be encouraged to ensure that scientists reflect freely on and consider changes in their own particular research settings?

Deciding the extent to which to seek regularized, theoretically explicit maps recalls all the conceptual and methodological choices identified in Taylor (2005, chapter 5, section A):  The boundaries of maps call out for negotiation—how far away from the individual researcher should the “horizon” of the map be drawn?  Should something other than the researcher’s issue be placed at the center?  If shifts in focus are entertained, the appropriate categories for interpreting and engaging with science are far from obvious.  The traditional focus that scientists and philosophers place on scientific claims can be stabilized only by separating research questions from research work and social support.  These realms are routinely traversed by scientists, however, even as they talk as if their scientific work derived only from the situations studied, not from their situatedness.  Moreover, once mapmakers acknowledge the existence of resources in their work situation or in the wider social context, should they look for regularities or structure in those resources?  Should they borrow from social theory and attempt to generalize about the situations in which research is done?  To the extent that generalizations discount or filter out the contingency and idiosyncrasy of scientists’ actions, do they inject a degree of determinism not apparent in the individual situations?  Finally, as answers to these questions are decided, mapmakers might ask what engagements or social actions they are privileging and facilitating.

The questions could be posed not only to mapmakers but also to anyone “reflecting on their situatedness” with a view to “acting self-consciously to change their subsequent scientific practice.”  Yet note the tension between pragmatic considerations and the logic of posing these as open questions (see discussion of practical reflexivity in Taylor 2005, chapter 5, section A).  It is quite a challenge for mapmakers to choose and depict the diversity of connections around their focal issue, without the additional task of reflecting deeply on the categories, boundaries, generalizability, and so on, of their maps.  Indeed, future workshop leaders may facilitate mapmaking by supplying a template of interpretive categories and themes.  Even so, there is nothing natural about the depth to which mapmakers (or other researchers) reflect on their situatedness in seeking to change their practice.  Any choice that mapmakers make or take for granted could be queried by their fellow workshop participants, who could ask how readily that choice could be modified.  Such probing would begin to expose diverse practical considerations that support such choices.

Mapping workshops offer a more direct path for bringing interpretation of science’s sociality to bear productively on scientific practice.  But they do not escape practical reflexivity’s tensions and complexities, which remain not only for the mapmakers but also for workshop conveners.  Conveners might want their workshops to distribute among others the work of interpreting and engaging with research, but this goal is unlikely to be realized unless the convenors have significant institutional resources, workshop leading skills, and free time.  Whether such resources can be assembled is a matter not of the workshop conveners’ will alone, but of their distributed agency.  In my own case, while waiting for an appropriate conjunction of circumstances for further mapping workshops, I used teaching and scholarly presentations to pursue another approach to encouraging researchers to reflect on their diverse resources,, which centered around the concept of intersecting processes.

Extracted from Taylor, P.J. (2005) Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press), chapter 5, Part B.


Fish, S. (1989). “Anti-foundationalism, theory hope, and the teaching of composition,” in Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies.  Durham: Duke University Press, 343-355.

Novak, J. D. (1990). “Concept mapping: A useful tool for science education.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 27(10): 937-949.

Taylor and Y. Haila (1989). “Mapping Workshops for Teaching Ecology.” Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 70(2): 123-125.


Mapping workshops and teaching

One participant of the Helsinki mapping workshop observed that “one question leads to ten questions—What is a lake? Why is phytoplankton one category?…” Another likened mapping to the process of writing and revising: “Like writing, out of mapping comes awareness of new parts of the map that need more work.”  Just as in a good graduate student dissertation research seminars, students raised a whole range of issues—from nagging uneasiness they feel about certain research directions to specific technical points—when these would have remained latent in a seminar dedicated to a specific theme.  Mapping workshops certainly warrant attention from other teachers as an approach to stimulating advanced students to define their research (Taylor and Haila 1989).  This approach, it should be noted, differs markedly from concept mapping (Novak 1990) in which the focus is on well-established relationships between concepts.  Mapping as described in the previous post allows mapmakers to explore what is not yet clear about an issue on which they want to take action.

Why a blog? Why this blog?

Recently I have received some long comments on earlier posts that address genetics and race. I need more time to digest the arguments and research cited, but already see that the direction is not one I agree with. Getting these comments has led me (at the advice of a colleague) to clarify why I am blogging:

1. To make sure I write every morning (even if the post is drawn from past work) before the busy-ness of teaching and administration takes over my day.
2. To see if these daily bits of writing and thinking (and recalling past writing and thinking) combine in ways that lead to new insights.
3. To expose my work more widely, including unpublished work, in the hope that kindred thinkers might come across it and make contact.

Q: What constitutes a kindred thinker? A: Someone who is interested in addressing complex situations “that cut across scales, involve heterogeneous components, and develop over time” and extending this interest to the interpretation of the researcher-in-social-context and to engagements that modify the directions that researchers take (including their own).

Q: What is my attitude about non-kindred thinkers who submit comments? A: Ad hominem comments disparaging others will not be approved for posting. Other comments will be accepted even if that means giving “airplay” to agendas of which I am quite critical. Sometimes I may have time to respond to such comments as I would as a teacher; sometimes not. I may also learn about research and ways of arguing that I need to think more about.

4. To complement, not substitute for, the personal connections through workshops [e.g., NewSSC] or regular conversations [e.g., ISHS].

Q: What combination of kinds of internet-facilitated connectedness is generative, sustaining, sustainable? A: I have been exploring this question with colleagues who make effective use of social media, e.g., making friends after twittering during conferences or having their blogs viewed after commenting on other people’s blogs.  The best result seems to be nested kinds of connectedness, with some people linked in immediately responsive and helpful ways and others just aware of one’s existence.  This is a topic for more exploration, reflection, and discussion.

Future Ideal Retrospective: Collaboratively generate a practical vision for future developments

Collaboratively contribute to each participant generating a practical vision for future developments based on evaluations or on statements, questions, and/or reservations concerning a certain challenge, such as learning from what has happened before (e.g., in a course, at a conference, etc.). This approach is based on Strategic Personal Planning as developed by the Institute for Cultural Affairs in Canada.

1. Either a. assemble written evaluations from, say, a conference, or b. ask a defined group (e.g., students in a course) to compose five statements, questions, and/or reservations that are important to them concerning a defined challenge (e.g., supporting each other to complete the course project by the end of the semester).
Session Proper (which may only include a subset of those who composed the evaluations or statements, Qs, etc.)
2. Circulate the sheets. Digest them one by one and make notes on what you read with a view to representing not only your own views but also those of others (who may or may not be present at the session).
3. Future ideal retrospective:

  • Imagine yourself some time in the FUTURE looking back with a sense of accomplishment on how far the group (e.g., conference organizing group, the students in the course) have come in response to the challenge (e.g., the issues raised the evaluation) = the IDEAL. Construe accomplishment broadly so it can include your own reflection and growth. RETROSPECTIVE: What happened to make this so?–What different kinds of things do you envisage having gone into or contributed to the positive developments?
  • These things can span the mundane and inspiring; tangible and intangible; process, as well as product; relationships as well as individual skills. Record these things on Post-its (3-5 WORDS IN BLOCK LETTERS)
    3a. Discussion in pairs of each other’s post-its while waiting for others to finish.
    4. Photocopy assembled post-its (so each participant has a copy).
    5. Grouping, naming, and synthesis done separately by each participant:
    Once you have about 30 post-its

  • Move the post-its around into groups of items that have something in common in the way they address the challenge.
  • Describe the groups using a phrase that has a verb in it or, at least, indicates some action. For example, instead of “Holistic Artistic Survival Project,” an active name would be “Moving holistically from surviving to thriving as artists.”
  • Group the groups in pairs or threes and give these larger groups descriptive active names.
  • Group these groups and name them, until you arrive at a descriptive active name for the practical vision post-its as a whole.
  • After the session
    6. Complete stage 5 and distribute them to others (example)


  • Collaboratively contribute to each of us generating a practical vision of future steps
  • Use post-it brainstorming (incl. clustering & naming) to rapidly assess a complex situation in a way that creates an experience of creativity
  • Experience post-it clustering as a fruitful way to clarify your future and thus go on to complete the activity after the session is over.
  • The Rs of personal, professional, and intellectual development through a program of studies

    When the interdisciplinary graduate program I teach in (CCT) was moved under a Department of Curriculum and Instruction, I decided to learn more about the theory that guided the Curriculum studies field. I came across William Doll’s account of postmodern curriculum design, which centers on another “4R’s”, in this case: richness, recursion, relation, and rigor (Doll 1993). My immediate response was that his R’s do not capture a lot of what goes into CCT students’ mid-career personal and professional development. I soon had twelve R’s, and then more. The figure below took shape as I played with ways to convey that some R’s will make limited sense until more basic Rs have been internalised and that periods of opening out alternate with periods of consolidating experiences to date.

    I sometimes present this schema to students as a way to take stock of their own development. I suggest that, at the end of each semester for as many Rs as they are ready to, they give an example and articulate their current sense of the R’s meaning(s). However, I mostly use the many R’s to remind myself as a teacher to expect the flow of development to be windy and less than direct (see note below on the contrast with “backward design”).

    Counterpoint to backward design. The schema of many R’s also stands as a counterpoint to the popular idea of backward design in curriculum, that is: identify desired results, determine acceptable evidence of students achieving those results, plan learning experiences and instruction accordingly, making explicit the sought-after results and evidence (Wiggins and McTighe 2005).

    Doll, W. E. (1993). A Post-Modern Perspective on Curriculum. New York, Teachers College Press.
    Wiggins, G. P. and J. McTighe (2005). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

    (Extracted from “Teaching/Learning for Reflective Practice,” a section of a book manuscript, Taking Yourself Seriously: A Fieldbook of Processes of Research and Engagement, also on the web.)